The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Bach Musicians will perform rarely heard vocal and instrumental holiday music from the Renaissance and Baroque eras this Saturday night. | December 10, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

If you follow this blog, you know the high respect that The Ear has for the Madison Bach Musicians (below) and its founder-director Trevor Stephenson, who is also a first-rate keyboard player and a supremely talented explainer whose talks are unfailingly instructive and entertaining.

Kangwon KIm with Madison Bach Musicians

Stephenson writes to The Ear about this weekend’s upcoming holiday concert, which will feature a lot of vocal music and compositions that are rarely heard in the usual holiday concert programs. Each year, he says, attendance keeps growing steadily for the early holiday music performed on period instruments with historically informed performance practices.

Here is what Trevor Stephenson (below) says:

Prairie Rhapsody 2011 Trevor Stephenson

This Saturday evening, Dec. 13, at 8 p.m. the Madison Bach Musicians will present its fourth annual Holiday Concert (below is a photo from the 2012 holiday concert) in the beautiful sanctuary of the First Congregational United Church of Christ, at 1609 University Avenue, near historic Camp Randall stadium.

Madison Bach Musicians in Bach Cantata Dec. 2012

The preconcert lecture is at 7:15 p.m. and the concert begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 for the public, $20 for students and seniors over 65, and they are available at Orange Tree Imports, Willy Street Co-op (east & west), Farley’s House of Pianos, Room of One’s Own and Ward Brodt. For tickets bought at the door, add $5. Student rush tickets will be available for $10 with a valid student ID. For more information about tickets and about MBM, visit www.madsionbachmusicians.org

This year, MBM has set the “Way-Back” machine for the 16th and 17th centuries.

We’ll open with a set of five masterworks for a capella or unaccompanied vocal quartet by Orlando di Lassus.

In addition to soprano Chelsea Morris (below, who now lives in Madison and who won the second Handel Aria Competition last summer at the Madison Early Music Festival), and alto Sarah Leuwerke (who also lives here in Madison), two outstanding young singers from New York City will be featured. Bass Davone Tines and tenor Kyle Bielfield are both recent graduates in voice from the Juilliard School and both are concertizing extensively throughout the world. Here are their websites. http://www.davonetines.com/ and
http://www.bielfield.com/

Chelsea Morris soprano

Then an instrumental band featuring recorder, dulcian or Renaissance bassoon, two viola da gambas, two baroque violins, and positive organ will present sonatas by Antonio Bertali and Johann Schenk.

Instruments and voices will join in works by Heinrich Schütz, Johann Schelle, Johann Froberger, and two of Johann Sebastian Bach’s amazing uncles Heinrich Bach and Johann Michael Bach.

The 16th and 17th centuries were full of religious upheaval, scientific advancement, global exploration and great advances in the dissemination of knowledge through the publishing revolution. The music printing presses as well really start rolling during these centuries.

The astoundingly beautiful music of Orlando di Lassus (below), which will open our upcoming concert, might have been largely unknown and –- after his death — even completely lost had it not been for the publishing houses (many of them in the Netherlands) that saw a strong market for this work.

Orlando di Lasso

It’s staggering really to think of the dozens, probably hundreds, of musicians pre-dating the advent of broad publication whose works existed only in a few handwritten copies that have not survived. Of course, even after publishing gets going in the latter part of what we now call the Renaissance in the 16th century, only a few composers enjoyed consistent press

What strikes me over and over again me about Lassus’ music is how the incredible complexity of its counterpoint is consistently directed toward a clear spiritual point. Remarkably, this miracle of style is still present 200 years after Lassus in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, where the density of the countrapuntal fabric actually helps keep the emotion centered. Claude Debussy remarked how in Bach’s music “the issue is never lost.”

Also, Lassus treats the human voice so well; all four singers have beautiful, independent lines that weave together into a mesmerizing curtain of sound. Legend has it that Lassus’ voice itself was so compelling that as a young singer he was “absconded with” more than once.

For the second work on the program I’ll play a fugue on the positive organ. This type of organ weighs only about 200 pounds and is relatively portable; MBM borrowed this beautiful instrument, made by the Dutch builder Klop, from Stephen Alltop in Evanston, Illinois.

The fugue I’ll play is by Giovanni Gabrieli, music director at the magisterial St. Mark’s church in Venice, which still stands today. Pieces like this fugue were typically composed in “open score,” simply four independent lines with no instrumental designation — the counterpoint is so great, the music works in any medium. I always imagine what it might have sounded like on four sackbuts (Renaissance trombones) positioned in opposing galleries in a resonant space like St. Marks.

Giovanni Gabrieli

The program also features two viola da gambas, bowed though fretted instrument in roughly the same register as a cello (there are also tenor and treble gambas).

Gambists Martha Vallon and Anna Steinhoff will perform a sonata by Heinrich Schenck based upon the famous Rhinemaidens legend, though this work comes two centuries before Richard Wagner went ballistic on the idea in hid “Ring” cycle.

Johann Schenck

The first half of the program will end with instrumental sonatas by the Italian virtuoso violinist Antonio Bertali (below and in a YouTube video at the bottom), who worked most of his career in Vienna, and was known for importing early Italian opera into the Austrian region. We’ll mix baroque violins, gambas, recorder, dulcian and organ in the Bertali set.

antonio bertali

The second part of the program opens with two pieces by German composer Heinrich Schütz (below).

Heinrich Schutz

The first is a celebratory Christmas piece (Christ the Lord is Born Today) for voices and instruments. That will be followed by a very secular piece, Golden Hair–for soprano, alto, two violins, and continuo—about how “you torture me with your beauty. Why won’t Venus send me some comfort! I languish and die.”

Seventeenth-century or whenever — how some things never change! Schütz worked at the Dresden court during the incredibly turbulent times of the Thirty Years War; some of his music is even designed for reduced ensembles, due to the ravages of the war. As a young man he traveled to Italy and studied with Monteverdi. Some of Schutz’s music is even directly borrowed, or adapted from Monteverdi, as is the case with Golden Hair as Schutz converts it from Italian to German.

Next are two works by Heinrich Bach (below),  Johann Sebastian Bach’s great uncle. First is an instrumental transcription of “Have Mercy Upon Us, O Lord God” for two violins and two gambas. Second is the mezzo-soprano solo, with instrumental accompaniment, “Oh, had I tears enough in my head to wash away my sins.” This unusual work sounds almost like 20th-century expressionism in many places. The harmony is very gnarled, twisted and gothic. To me, Alban Berg’s Wozzeck is just around the corner.

Heinrich Bach

Following this is a rare vocal work by the great 17th-century keyboard composer Johann Froberger (below). The inventive texture mixes three voices and instruments and the text celebrates the vanquishing of death and the ecstatic speaking in tongues by the Apostles when visited by the Holy Spirit. The vocal lines are very nimble and suggest the animation of “speaking in all languages.”

johann froberger

Johann Schelle’s wrote a good deal of seasonal music and this Christmas piece is a prayer to the infant Jesus imploring him to rest in our hearts so that we will never again forget him.

The sentiment is very close to that found in the final aria in J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, “Mache dich mein herze rein,” in which the soul expresses its longing to have the Savior entombed and enshrined within our hearts, so that we may live in grace. Schelle was the Kapellmeister at Leipzig during much of the latter part of the 17th century — two generations before J. S. Bach took the job in the early 1720s.

The final composer featured on this Holiday program, Johann Michael Bach, was the son of Heinrich Bach and was also the father of Johann Sebastian Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara Bach. Put another way, Johann Michael Bach was J. S. Bach’s father-in-law. The text is from the Christmas gospel, where the angels implore the shepherds not to be afraid, but to rejoice, for the Savior has come to earth. J. M. Bach set the text for antiphonal choirs, and MBM will do this by having voices in dialogue with the instrumental band.

Johann Michael Bach

Here is the complete program:

Orlando de Lassus (c. 1532–1594): Ave Regina Coelorum; Adoramus te; Carmina Chromatico; Missa pro defunctis; Introit Jubilate Deo

Giovanni Gabrieli (1557–1612): Fuga del nono tono

Johann Schenck (1660–1716?): Sonata III for two viols from “Le Nymphe di Rheno”

Antonio Bertali (1605–1669): Sonata in A minor for two violins and continuo; Sonata in G major for recorder, violin and dulcian

INTERMISSION

Heinrich Schütz (1585–1682): Heute ist Christus der Herr geboren; Güldne Haare

Heinrich Bach (1615–1692): Erbarm dich ein, O Herre Gott (instrumental version).

Johann Froberger (1616-1667): Ach, dass ich Wassers genug hätte; Alleluia Absorta est mors.

Johann Schelle (1648–1701): Ach mein herzliebes Jesulein

Johann Michael Bach (1648–1694): Fürchtet euch nicht

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